Backpacking the Virgin River Narrows in Zion National Park

Zion National Park

Intrepid hikers ready to hit yet another trail! Our 11th backpacking trip together.

Every summer I venture out on a backpacking adventure, usually in a national park in the western US. This summer was no exception. My hiking buddy Marv has a great book that details some of the best backpacking trips in the world. One that has caught our eye for years is the Virgin River Narrows in Utah’s Zion National Park. This unique hike takes hikers 16 miles through the Virgin River valley and slot canyons known as the Narrows.

Since this is a one-way hike, transportation is required to get to the trailhead unless you can leave one car at the top and another at the bottom. We opted for a shuttle that dropped us off in the area known as Chamberlain’s Ranch. Although on private property, it’s the trailhead for the Virgin River Narrows hike. Complete with an outhouse (the last toilet you’ll see until returning to Zion Canyon at the end of the hike!). The trailhead is the starting point for both day hikers, doing all 16 miles in one day, and overnighters like us. The Park Service requires permits to camp overnight in the canyon. About half the permits are available  in advance and the others on a first come, first served walk-up basis. Permits are released a month at a time approximately three months in advance. We reserved ours in advance on the first day they became available. Judging from availability on the website, nearly all permits were snatched up within minutes of becoming available, so be sure to plan ahead.

Several outfitters provide shuttle service to the trailhead as well as gear to make your hike in the river easier. Dry bags, river shoes & socks, and hiking poles can be rented from a variety of outfitters in Springdale. We opted to wear our own hiking boots, carry our own hiking poles, and simply insert a rented drybag into our own backpacks to keep food, clothes, sleeping bags, and valuables dry.

Zion National Park

First crossing

Three shuttles converged on the trailhead at approximately 8:15 a.m. After queuing up for the outhouse and slathering on sunscreen, we hit the trail. The trail immediately fords the Virgin River, dunking your hiking boots and setting the tone for the rest of the hike. The trail starts out as a gravel road that meanders near the Virgin River in its somewhat wide meadow-filled valley.

This part of the trail is an easy stroll, passing a deserted historic cabin before catching up to the river again. Here, the trail ends, the road ends, and the hike truly enters the river. From here on out, the hike spends more time in the river than out of it. The National Park Service describes it as walking on slippery bowling balls, and we found this to be not too far from the truth, as my swollen ankles will attest.

By this point, the day hikers had left us behind, unburdened by heavy backpacks and needing to get the 12.5-hour hike underway so they could finish before dark. Note to day hikers: the shuttle driver asked each group of day hikers if they had a flashlight! Not a bad plan considering that the route was tricky at times and slow. However, I would not want to have to hike any of this in the dark, flashlight or no!

As the hike continues, the valley narrows and the canyon walls rise. With the day hikers well ahead of the overnighters, and few overnighters on the trail, there’s lots of solitude to be had, especially given the many twists and turns on the trail.  Occasional side canyons offer chances to explore and get out of the water, whether it be for a rest or a snack or a photo opportunity.

Zion National Park

Some log scrambling was required

Most spots on the trail require walking in ankle- or knee-deep water, but a few spots are waist- and even chest-deep. It’s possible to walk on the banks at times, but the few social trails that exist along the banks are quite rocky and uneven and often require boulder scrambles or scrambling over downed trees. I preferred staying in the water while my hiking partner preferred walking on the banks when possible.

At one point the canyon narrows and the river plunges over a 20 foot waterfall. Luckily, nature has provided a split in the rocks just to the left of the waterfall and a steep downward scramble connects the upper river valley with the lower. Unfortunately there’s no easy way to see the waterfall from below without getting into some deep water. We opted to continue on.

Zion National Park

Waterfall from the top

The backcountry ranger recommended not using the water from the upper Virgin River for drinking, as it passes through ranchland prior to entering the canyon. We filled up our water bottles at our hotel before taking the shuttle, and had plenty of water to get us through the day.

Below the waterfall, Deep Creek merges with the Virgin River. The backcountry ranger correctly said that water flowing from Deep Creek was much cleaner than water coming from the Virgin River, so we stopped there to fill up our water bottles before heading to our campsite. We used our Vapur microfilters to fill up our Nalgenes, Platypus, and Vapur anti-bottles in a white sandy spot between the two rivers.

Zion National Park

Our campsite on the bluff

Campsite number one is across the river from where Deep Creek merges into the river and is perhaps the nicest location of all the campsites we saw. The dozen or so campsites are spread out along the river, each one being about a 10 or 15 minute walk from the next. Staying at campsite number one would make the second day of the hike much longer. We had campsite number three, which was perched on a wooded bluff above a bend in the river.

Our campsite had a nice flat spot for a tent as well as some logs and rocks to sit on and use as tables. As for bathroom facilities, the Park Service requests that you pee in the river and use a wag bag for pooping, and they provide the bag along with your permit. While pooping in a bag may be a turn-off for some backpackers, considering how many poop holes would be dug within walking distance of your campsite over the course of the summer is perhaps more disgusting. In reality, the wag bags are a brilliant design. Complete with a drawstring bag, enzymes to break down the waste, a strong mylar design, a Ziploc-type seal, and its own carry bag, it’s a go-and-forget-about-it deal.

The second day of the hike took us through the most spectacular part of the Narrows. The canyon walls rose and rose hundreds of feet on either side of the river and narrowed so that there was no bank on either side for extended periods of time. The first landmark we passed was Big Spring, a beautiful set of waterfalls cascading down one side of the canyon and adding more water to the flow of the river. It was also the first point where we encountered day hikers coming up from Zion Canyon. From here, the river traffic really increased. We encountered groups of scouts, youth groups, and lots of day hikers coming up from Zion Canyon to explore the Narrows. While our solitude factor decreased, the scenery factor increased.

Zion National Park

Hoisting the pack for our deepest crossing

The point at which most day hikers stop to turn around and go back to Zion Canyon was a narrow point in the river which required us to take off our packs, hold them above our heads, and wade through nearly shoulder deep water. The Narrows continued to Orderville Canyon, a side canyon that is navigable in both directions, but requires some climbing skills over a dry waterfall. I had explored Orderville Canyon on previous day hikes up from Zion Canyon, so we opted to continue directly to the trailhead.

The canyon widens a bit as you near the Temple of Sinawava, and the number of day hikers increases exponentially. It’s still a fun, beautiful hike, and the swift current of the river offers several opportunities for jumping in for a swim or and or a quick float down parts of the river. Just before the trailhead is the Weeping Wall. A cascade of water trickles down a rock face covered with many bright green plants. Along the last stretch of the trail, many of the day hikers asked us about our overnight adventure — always a little bit of encouragement to get you to the end of the trail.

Zion National Park

A well-deserved reward at the end of the hike.

This was the most beautiful scenery of any of the backpacking trips I have done, and although it was only a two day hike, it was still very challenging. My ankles were definitely ready for a rest by the end! If you have a chance to do this hike, take it. It’s well deserving of that spot in the best backpacking trips in the world book.

Enjoy your next hiking adventure, whether it’s for a week or a weekend — and whatever well-deserved reward you earn at trail’s end!


Want Zion without the crowds? Go around the corner to Kolob Canyons!

IMG_0075The final stop on our recent adventure in Zion National Park was in its sparsely touristed northwest corner.  The little-known but beautiful Kolob Canyons area of the park requires a 45-minute drive from Springdale:  first, out of the park to the west, and then north on I-15.  The small visitor center sits just off of the freeway, but the scenic drive climbs quickly into wilderness.  The climb brought cooler temperatures and a strong canyon breeze, welcome relief from Utah’s summer heat.  It was still hot, but it wasn’t scorching.

The canyon is gorgeous — almost as spectacular as Zion Canyon, with deep oranges and reds — and the dead-end road winds up to the Timber Creek Overlook trailhead.  A short hike ends at a rock outcropping that drops off on three sides to the forested valley below.  On a clear day, the Grand Canyon is supposedly visible to the south, but we couldn’t spot it.

We did spot a Spotted Towhee in the trees before retracing our steps to the trailhead where we enjoyed the view and a picnic lunch.  We spent only about an hour or two in this corner of the park, but highly recommend it.  We’ll spend more time here on our next visit to Zion!

Another nearby stop, perhaps best suited to families with small children, is south of the park and just off of I-15 in St. George.  The privately run Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm gets solid reviews on TripAdvisor and apparently sparked at least one 3- or 4-year old little boy’s imagination at Zion, as we overheard him say “I wish we could find a dinosaur fossil!”

What’s your favorite untouristed chunk of an otherwise touristy destination?  Enjoy your next visit there, whether it’s for a week or a weekend!

Zion Canyon: In Search of the Mighty Condors

Zion Canyon

Zion Canyon hop on/hop off shuttle bus

For our second full day in Utah’s Zion National Park, we did a hop on/hop off bus tour. Since they are free and run about every 7-10 minutes most of the day, Zion National Park’s shuttle buses are a fun and easy way to see a lot of different areas of the park. It was also extremely hot, so it was nice to be able to go between parts of the park on the shuttle instead of walking everywhere. They’re not air-conditioned or anything, but the open windows create a cooling breeze and you can sit and rest while you marvel at the views.

Erin wanted to photograph the Court of the Patriarchs with the morning sun on them, and lucky for us, the sun has to get up over the canyon walls, so that wasn’t crack-of-dawn early! We started out at about 8:30 and took the park shuttle up to the stop. Court of the Patriarchs is a beautiful spot, and there’s a lookout up a very short trail that gives a great view. There’s a bench up there, too. The morning light was perfect on the hills! A wide-angle lens came in very handy – the vistas are so wide! The Patriarchs were named in 1916 by a Methodist minister for three of the big names in the Bible – Abraham on the left, Isaac in the middle and Jacob on the right.

Court of the Patriarchs

Court of the Patriarchs

We spent just about fifteen minutes here – there’s not lot to do at this spot, but we were glad to have had the chance to really sit back and look. Then we hopped back on the shuttle and went up to the Big Bend stop due to a bird nerd alert. We had heard that California Condors sometimes fly up in that part of the canyon, and as they are one of the world’s most endangered species, we were hoping to see one (or even two – they have a nesting pair). This, too, is a beautiful spot.

We saw hikers up at Angel’s Landing moving across the ridge, and we saw huge birds flying up in the canyon. We were sure they were the Condors, and we got pretty excited. And then we took out our iBird Pro app and realized they were probably Turkey Vultures. But maybe not. We’d look through our binoculars and then at the photos on our app. Binoculars, app. And repeat. We wanted them to be Condors! Alas, they were not. So we’re still in search of the mighty Condors! We did see a Black-headed Grosbeak there which we’d never seen before, so that was still exciting. And we saw and heard lots of Yellow Warblers which are prevalent in this park and have a beautiful song.

Our next stop was the Emerald Pools Trail which leaves from the lodge. We did spend a few minutes watching (read: trying to identify) Western Bluebirds flitting about before our hike. Such a pretty blue! The Emerald Pools Trail is not very long (just 1.2 miles to the lower pool), and since it’s also near the lodge, it’s quite busy. If you go at noon like we did, it’s also very hot. (We wouldn’t recommend going at noon if you’ve got a choice!) The best thing about the Emerald Pools hike is that there are waterfalls at the end! Visitors aren’t allowed in the pools, so the cooling splashes from the waterfalls were a delightful surprise! After a big rain I’m sure they are rushing, and later in summer they may dry up, but for our hike, they were just perfect.

We continued the “water is cooling” theme the rest of the afternoon. We stopped at the Weeping Wall, where the water actually seeps out through the rock. This trail is steep but just about a five-minute hike up, and it’s quite amazing how much cooler it is just getting close to the rock. Lots of green here, too, of course. Actually, we were surprised by the amount of green throughout Zion. We had expected more of an arid, desert landscape, but there are lots of deciduous trees here – particularly cottonwoods. Thankfully they weren’t blooming while we were there as they’re Jeff’s biggest allergy enemy!

Our last stop was at Canyon Junction to go play in the river. There are some great spots easily accessible from the shuttle stop to wade or even swim if you want, and it feels heavenly at the end of a hot day. We had planned just to stay a half hour or so, and we stayed a lot longer than that because it was just so beautiful, relaxing, and cool! It’s a pretty popular spot in the afternoon.

Sitting on top of the dam at Canyon Junction

Sitting atop of the dam at Canyon Junction

If you only have one day in Zion and you’re not up for the Virgin River hike, the hop on/hop off shuttle bus is a great way to see several areas in the canyon. You might want to finish at the Riverside Walk if you’re not doing the river hike instead of the canyon, though, because that’s a nice little walk and you can also play in the river there.

Do you have a favorite spot in Zion we didn’t mention? Leave us a note in the comments, and enjoy your next national park adventure, whether it’s for a week or a weekend!

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What’s a bumbleberry, you ask? Head to Zion and find out!

The quiet, eastern side of Zion National Park

The quiet, eastern side of Zion National Park

Last week, Erin told you all about our hiking adventure in the Narrows of the Virgin River at the north end of Zion Canyon.  It was certainly the highlight of our trip, but we had a blast exploring the rest of the park, too.  While the shuttle bus and the bulk of the tourists head to the Narrows, be sure to get off the beaten path and check out the other — lesser traveled — corners of Zion National Park.

Zion is less than a three-hour drive from Las Vegas (faster, of course, if you don’t stop at the border for a photo of yourself in front of the “Welcome to Utah” sign … and at the Arizona border before that!).  We made a quick stop on our way into Zion at the Springdale Fruit Company.  Light on fresh produce, at least in mid-June, it offered healthy snacks, cold beverages, a nice picnic area, a deli, ice cream, and outdoor picnic tables in the shade of some beautiful trees.  Our favorite item:  spotting a bright red Summer Tanager among the trees in the orchard!  Bird nerd alert!

Three states in one day!

Three states in one day!

Eager to get to the park, we passed our motel — the Bumbleberry Inn — and drove through Springdale, the touristy gateway town to Zion.  Springdale offers restaurants, hotels, gift shops, groceries, and the like, but not in a gaudy Wal-Mart and McDonald’s sort of way.  The town offers cute, low-slung wooden buildings, sidewalks, and a free shuttle bus to the park with many stops throughout Springdale.

Whether you’re planning to visit the park or not, paying the admission fee is required, even to drive through.  We are big fans of the Annual Pass, which, for $80, provides admission to all US National Parks and federal recreation sites (over 2,000!).  Such a deal!  We bought ours at Channel Islands NP last summer and, by the time it expires in August, we will have used it in six National Parks (and we should have used it in the Mt. Hood National Forest this spring…).

This blind -- or not freestanding -- arch graces the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway just west of the tunnel.

This blind — not freestanding — arch graces the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway just west of the tunnel.

We bypassed the Visitor Center and the Zion Canyon shuttle, instead opting to drive east through the park.  The road climbs up from Canyon Junction, the start of the dead-end spur road that’s closed to private vehicles — but a free shuttle snakes into Zion Canyon past landmarks like the Court of the Patriarchs, Emerald Pools, Zion Lodge, Angels’ Landing, Weeping Wall, and Big Bend on its way to the mouth of The Narrows.

Saving that trip for the next day, we drove eastward and upward.  The massive Great Arch, tucked in a valley north of the highway, provides a massive reminder of the power of erosion.  Although not crowded, the viewpoint offered some great people-watching as well — from rock climbers wrapping up their day to tourists from around the world.

The 1.1-mile tunnel is the link between Zion's center and east side.

The 1.1-mile tunnel was once the nation’s longest and remains the link between Zion’s center and east side.

We continued the drive, which quickly became a series of switchbacks en route to the 1.1-mile long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel.  The nation’s longest when it was built in 1930, the two-lane tunnel prohibits bicyclists and pedestrians and has restrictions on large vehicles.  Upon driving into it, we understood why!  It’s pitch black and narrow inside, with a few occasional windows that provided Erin a glimpse of the valley outside (I was too busy trying to dilate my pupils to be able to see the road — did we mention it was dark?!?).

On the other side of the tunnel, the landscape opens up a bit and the geology changes, too.  The sandstone of Zion Canyon gives way to slickrock mesas, the most prominent of which is the aptly named Checkerboard Mesa.  While there are only a few turnouts between the tunnel exit and the park’s east entrance, there are opportunities to get out and explore.

Aptly named Checkerboard Mesa near Zion's east entrance.

Aptly named Checkerboard Mesa near Zion National Park’s east entrance.

After snapping a few photos of Checkerboard Mesa, we climbed up a veritable funnel of slickrock and had a great view of the surrounding mesas.  Then it was back through the tunnel to the Visitor Center to get some tips for birding and for our upcoming Narrows hike.  Watchman Campground, adjacent to the Visitor Center, offers some shade trees as well as proximity to the Visitor Center, Springdale, both shuttle buses, and the cooling water of the Virgin River.

Of course, no road trip to a national park would be complete without playing the license plate game!  We cruised through the Visitor Center parking lot a few times on this trip, a genius license plate game tactic if we do say so ourselves!  (Hey, it works: we found plates from 39 states and DC on this trip!  But where were the Pennsylvanians?!?)


Exploring the east side of Zion National Park

After picking up a picnic dinner at the Sol Foods market and hitting the pool at our hotel, we headed over to the Bumbleberry Bakery for some dessert:  bumbleberry pie!  So what’s a bumbleberry?  Part blackberry, part blueberry, and part tall tale (the bakery offers some fun folklore about it), we’ll just say that it’s tasty!  Maybe you’ll have to visit Zion and try it for yourselves sometime!

Have you been to Zion?  Have you eaten the famous Bumbleberry pie?  Or driven through the tunnel?  Or played on the slickrock?  Let us know in the comments, and enjoy your week or your weekend!

Sure hits the spot after a long day of hiking!

Bumbleberry pie sure hits the spot after a long day of hiking!

Hiking the Virgin River: Our Anniversary in Zion

Zion NP

Welcome to Zion NP!

We celebrated our 24th anniversary at Zion National Park. It would have been difficult to beat the spectacular beauty of this park or the awesome hike we did that day. We spent seven hours hiking in and playing around the Virgin River in what’s called The Narrows.

We left our hotel at about 8:30 and caught the park shuttle right out front. There’s a free shuttle bus that stops at several points in the town of Springdale and goes to the park entrance. From there, a footbridge leads to the pedestrian park entrance — pay your fee (good for 7 days, but be sure you bring your receipt each day or you’ll have to pay again) and head to the Visitor Center. From there, a second shuttle bus heads directly into Zion Canyon. For much of the year, no cars are allowed (pedestrians & bicyclists are welcome) — so it can get quite crowded in the mornings. To get to the Narrows hike trailhead, ride all the way to the shuttle’s final stop, the Temple of Sinawava.

Zion shuttle

Zion shuttle bus — the only way to drive into the Zion River Canyon.  Buses run every 7-10 minutes.

There, you’ll first walk on the Riverside Walk trail, which is a one mile paved path along the river. It seemed that most people along this walk didn’t continue on to do the Narrows hike. The Narrows hike is extremely busy; it’s not wall-to-wall people or anything, but it’s definitely not a solitary hike in the wilderness, at least not in summer. But it doesn’t matter because it is SO fun and so beautiful!

We recommend good walking shoes and definitely using some sort of hiking poles. Many people rent shoes from one of the adventure companies in town that are sturdy and have neoprene liners. We also saw many people with one rented walking stick, and that seemed to work well for them. At least we never saw anyone fall over!  We wore our own shoes and were very glad for their grippy Vibram soles, as there were several spots where the rocks were slick and that water moves pretty quickly. The neoprene liners would have been nice, but once our feet got used to the 58 degree water, it didn’t seem so bad. We would definitely recommend not wearing sandals of any kind on this hike. Your legs and toes will thank you. We saw a few crazies hiking in bare feet and one woman in flip flops, so it can be done, but it doesn’t seem like a great idea. Hiking back down the river with a broken toe or sprained ankle would really put a damper on the fun of the hike!

Virgin Narrows

Start of Virgin River Narrows hike — with quite a few others!

We were on the river by 9:30, and it was still quite cold in the canyon because the sun wasn’t high enough to get down in there. Add that to the freezing water, and we were glad to have worn two shirts. The first half of the hike is all against the current, and while it’s not terribly difficult, you’re working with each step, so we warmed up pretty quickly. The section we hiked was about 3 miles each way, and for most of that hike we were crossing back and forth through the river.  Some of the hiking was on the banks through sand and rocks.

Zion River Narrows

The canyon walls were amazing!

We were able to find some rocks on the bank for a nice picnic spot at about the halfway point. We brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit, cookies, our favorite sesame snaps, and some very inferior trail mix which was a sore disappointment. We also carried about 4L of water, most of which we drank throughout the day. It got much warmer later in the day!

Zion Narrows canyon

A little hike up the much narrower side canyon

We didn’t go all the way to the end of the Narrows. The river forks at Orderville Canyon, and we went down the side canyon a little ways to explore.

There’s a waterfall about an hour up the canyon, but we didn’t get there, either. The water was much shallower and warmer in the side canyon! It was super narrow, too. It was crazy to look up and see how high the walls went. It was also crazy to think that the river carries out about 1 million tons of debris each year, mostly during 15-20 days of flooding (yes, I was listening to that recorded spiel on the shuttle bus). I can’t imagine being in those canyons when that river is really rushing! Which reminds me to point out that the Narrows hike is closed when the water is moving faster than a certain level or if flash flooding is predicted, so check on that if you’re planning a trip.

Zion River Narrows

Jeff took a little dip in the river and floated down in the current!

On our way back, the walking was a bit easier because the current was going with us, but it was much, much warmer, so we got really hot. Solution? Find a deep spot and jump on in. Holy freezing cold, Batman! 58 degrees is dang cold. But with the breeze and the sun on you, you’re dry and warm again in a jiffy, ready to do it again!

Even with all so many other people on the hike, it‘s still an incredible experience to be hiking in a canyon surrounded by gorgeous sandstone walls (the world’s highest). It’s a trip we would highly recommend. If you have only one day in Zion, ride the bus to Sinawava, look out the windows of the bus as you go up the canyon, and then get off the bus and join the crowds for an unforgettable experience.

Whether you’re in a river or not, enjoy your week or your weekend!


National Parks for Free (or close to it)!

Zion NP

Wahoo – FREE entry to US National Parks!

Well, we barely gave you time to miss us, but we have important info to share, so we’re back already. Summer vacation may be ending, but fun at the national parks lasts all year long — and you know we love our national parks! Here’s what you need to know about national park bargains over the next few months.

Fee free dates for fall. On the dates listed below, entry to all 400+ of the national parks, monuments, battlefields, historical parks/sites, lakeshores, seashores, scenic rivers and trails, etc. – is FREE for everyone! What a deal!

  • August 25: National Park Service Birthday
  • September 30: National Public Lands Day
  • November 11-12: Veterans Day WeekendEvery Kid in a Park

All 4th graders in the country can get a FREE annual pass for the whole family again this year! Be sure to ask your child’s teacher or librarian about getting the pass. What an awesome opportunity this is, and we’re thrilled it’s in its third year. You can read more about the program in a previous post.

Good for life!

And finally, seniors 62 and older can purchase a lifetime Senior Pass! Buy now — the price of the lifetime Senior Pass will increase from $10 to $80 on August 28, 2017. A new $20 annual Senior Pass will become available at the same time. You can still purchase the lifetime passes for $10, but don’t delay. CLICK HERE to order by mail (must be postmarked by August 28), or order online — both options cost $20 total ($10  pass plus $10 order fee). Or, save $10 by stopping at any national park unit to purchase before August 28. Of course, $80 for a lifetime pass is still a pretty darn good deal!!

Enjoy your next national park adventure, whether it’s for a week or a weekend, and if you’re on Twitter, use the hashtag #LuvYourNPs to spread the love!


Five Tips for Planning Summer Lodging in US National Parks

Zion NP

Who doesn’t love visiting a national park?!?

The US National Park Service is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and has been running a couple of campaigns to celebrate, including the Every Kid in a Park campaign and the Find Your Park campaign. As a result, NPS is expecting record crowds in our national parks this year!

That’s great news: it’s awesome that more people are out exploring nature. However, if you are planning a national park trip for this summer, you’ll want to be prepared so you don’t get shut out on lodging.

Tip #1: If you’re looking to stay inside a park, find your park on the website and look under the Plan Your Visit tab.

There, the parks list their lodges as well as campgrounds. Park lodges are typically more expensive than regular hotels, but they have the advantage of being right in the heart of the action. Many of them book up a year in advance, so be sure to call as soon as possible.

Tip #2: If your preferred lodging dates are sold out, ask to be added to a waiting list.

Many campgrounds are first-come, first-served, but some do allow visitors to make reservations. If you’re hoping for a first-come, first-served spot, know that those often fill up before noon.

Tip #3: Call a day ahead and ask a ranger what time you need to arrive at a particular campground for the best chance of getting a campsite.

Most parks have towns nearby that offer additional lodging options, and many have the advantage of being more budget friendly. One of our tried and true methods for finding lodging in towns near the parks we plan to visit is to search TripAdvisor — we’ve never been steered wrong by its reviews.

Tip #4: If your outside-the-park lodging options are in small towns, plan as far ahead as possible.

We’re planning to visit three parks in Colorado this summer (bringing us closer to our goal of visiting all 52 US national parks), and when we looked for lodging near Great Sand Dunes NP, we didn’t find many options. It turned out there was only one room left at the place we wanted to stay, two months in advance! Needless to say, we booked it!

Tip #5: Make reservations even if your plans aren’t firm. Most lodging options don’t charge a cancellation fee until a few days before arrival.

Bonus tip:  if you’ve got time to travel at the end of August, you may want to take advantage of the NPS fee free days: August 25-28. A lot of other people may have that idea, too, though, so be sure to get your lodging secured early!

Whenever and wherever you go, enjoy your next national park adventure — whether it’s for a week or a weekend!


Looking Back on a Great Year of Travel

2015 was another great year of travel!

We’re lucky to live in Oregon, a state with incredible natural beauty, and we took advantage of it this year! We took several trips to the Oregon coast, and it was even sunny a few times. We also played in the Mt. Hood National Forest, hiking to Little Zigzag Falls and camping at Lost Lake (where Jeff saw his first ever salamander in the wild, if you can believe that!). We hiked on the Eagle Creek trail in the Columbia Gorge with family in the summer, and got soaked in the crazy December rain exploring the waterfalls on the historic Columbia River Highway.

We snuck in a trip or two outside of Oregon, too. Jeff went to Illinois to see his beloved Cubbies in Wrigleyville in one of their best seasons in our lifetime and to help his parents move. He listened to band after band at Milwaukee’s famed Summerfest, the world’s largest music festival, and hiked 16 miles in the Virgin River on a backpacking trip to Zion National Park.

Erin went to Victoria, BC with her mom and sister for a girls getaway and found the world’s largest gavel with one of her brothers in Columbus, Ohio. A little quirky, yes, but it was there, she was there, it had to be done. Luckily, the federal agents were very nice when they asked the two of them to leave. True story!

Together we traveled to Patagonia, Arizona to do some birding, to Palm Springs to see Erin’s folks in the spring, to Florida to visit Jeff’s folks on the Gulf Coast a couple times, and we got to take our niece on her 13th birthday trip to the national park of her choice — genius that she is, she chose the Virgin Islands National Park. We roughed it in a cabin on the beach at Cinnamon Bay Campground.

We feel so lucky to have been able to enjoy so many places this year. We hope you were able to travel yourselves or at least enjoy some of our travels vicariously.  Let us know about a favorite 2015 trip in the comments. Enjoy your next travel adventure, whether it’s for a week or a weekend, and we’ll see you next year!

Six Backcountry Drinking Water Options for Hiking, Camping, & Backpacking

Water, water everywhere…and not a drop to drink (without filtering!)

Water, water everywhere…

Every summer, I embark on at least one backpacking adventure. Hiking and camping in the backcountry for several nights means having to find water along the trail — and I’ve learned (and taught!) enough biology to know that a handful of water scooped up from a seemingly refreshing trailside stream has a pretty good chance of sporting some protozoa or bacteria that could make the rest of the hike pretty miserable. So, in the name of leaving the Imodium in the bottom of your pack, here are six options for making non-potable water potable while you’re on the trail, including my new favorite, the Vapur Microfilter!

1. Carry your own clean water. Day hikers routinely toss a water bottle or two into their packs and don’t think twice about water after that. It’s a great option if you’re doing a short out-and-back trail hike, but I’ve seen lots of thirsty hikers on lots of different trails. We’ve also been on plenty of day hikes where it would’ve been nice to have a bit more water than we brought along. And carrying enough water for multiple days — at 8 lb/gal (1 kg/L) — is out of the question for me.

Hiking Zion National Park's Virgin River Narrows

Hiking Zion National Park’s Virgin River Narrows

2. Boil the water you find along the trail. Boiling water effectively destroys protozoa, bacteria, and viruses, with the added bonus of separating out most sediment. But, it requires carrying a container to boil it in and either building a fire — not an option in many backcountry areas — or carrying a stove and fuel. While I’ve carried a stove & fuel on many backpacking adventures, the idea of collecting, boiling, and waiting for water to cool before drinking has never appealed to me.

3. Add disinfecting tablets to the water you’ve put in your bottles. Many backpackers use disinfecting tablets to purify water from streams, lakes, and rivers. The iodine-based tablets kill both protozoa and bacteria, and are one of the few ways to destroy viruses that may be present in water due to animal fecal waste. Still, I’ve shied away from these types of tablets due to their taste, opting instead for other options and seeking water sources with a low likelihood of containing animal fecal waste. Unfortunately, without any filtration, options #2 and #3 don’t remove any turbidity from the water before drinking it.

Pumping water in Kings Canyon National Park

My backpacking buddy Marv pumping water in Kings Canyon National Park

4. Use a pump-style filter with a hose to pull water right from the source. Filtering minimizes turbidity and cloudiness, along with removing protozoa and bacteria. A pump draws water directly from a freshwater source (stream, river, or lake), attaches directly to a water bottle, and filters the water before filling the bottle. The MSR pump I’ve carried for years advertises a 1 L/min pump rate, which in practice seems optimistic. It’s easy — and important — to clean the filter regularly, as a clogged filter really slows down the filtration rate. Until my most recent backpacking trip, this was my go-to filtration system, as it attached to my Nalgene-style water bottles and allowed me to carry as much filtered water as my shoulders would allow.

5. Use a suction-style filter to filter water as you drink it. Relatively new to the filtration game, a Vapur Microfilter combines the Vapur Anti-Bottle (a collapsible, reusable water bottle) with a straw-type filter. Simply fill the bottle with freshwater from any source and screw in the Microfilter. Suck the water through the filter and mouthpiece and you’re all set — no tablets, no pumping, no boiling, no carrying pounds of extra water. Its filtration efficiency exactly matches that of the MSR pump, and I find it very easy to use. I even use it as a pump to fill my Nalgene, Platypus, and additional Vapur Anti-Bottles — filling it with stream water and then squeezing the water out through the filter/straw/mouthpiece so that I can carry more filtered water without having to stop and refill.

6. Use ultraviolet radiation to purify the water in your bottles. UV radiation can destroy viruses and kill both protozoa and bacteria, and devices like the SteriPen Adventurer Opti can be placed directly into a water bottle to zap any undesirables (1 L of water per 90 seconds, reportedly). I haven’t tried this option, so I’m reserving judgment for now. Its upside appears to be virus removal and the flexibility to use it with a variety of containers, while its downside — along with options #2 and #3 — is its lack of filtration.

When it comes right down to it, how we backpackers treat our water is a matter of personal preference. Some opt for the most lightweight option (tablets), while others opt for the heavier options (boiling or carrying). Boiling, UV, and tablets are more effective at removing viruses, but don’t remove any particles like filters do. A combination of methods (filtration and UV, for example) may be the most prudent option, but since backpackers have been known to saw toothbrushes in half in the name of cutting weight, the extra weight involved in carrying two systems may be a dealbreaker.

For now, I’ll stick to using a suction-style filter such as the Vapur Microfilter. While it doesn’t remove viruses (just as my trusty pump filter didn’t — and I’ve never had any issues), its ease of use, light weight, and versatility (including the ability to use it to fill other containers) put it at the top of my list for my next backpacking adventure. After using it on a recent backpacking trip through the Virgin River Narrows in Zion National Park, I can’t see myself carrying a pump-style filter again.



Are you a backpacker? Day hiker? How do you stay hydrated on the trail? Let us know in the comments, and enjoy some clean, refreshing water on your next travel adventure, whether it’s for a week or a weekend!

Disclosure: Vapur provided us with two Microfilters in exchange for this review. However, all opinions are our own.

“Secret” Hiking Spots of Southern Utah & Northern Arizona

Zion River hike

Zion River hike

This week we invited our friend Miranda to write a guest post for us about a summer trip she took with her husband. I never thought I’d want to go to Southern Utah and Northern Arizona in the summer until I read about their trip!

After returning from a trip with my husband Mark to three amazing national parks (Zion, Bryce Canyon, and the north rim of the Grand Canyon), we were a little sunburned, our mosquito bites were starting to fade, and we were exhausted from getting up at dawn every day to beat the summer crowds and desert heat. Still, we wouldn’t have missed this gorgeous corner of the world for anything!

While the best-known sights at each park were breathtaking – we especially loved hiking the Zion Narrows, thanks to A Week or a Weekend’s excellent advice on what to pack – some of our favorite stops were actually at national monuments. Our $80 annual America the Beautiful pass gave us free admission to the monuments along with the national parks. Quite a bargain!

Since so much has already been written about the main attractions at the national parks, I thought I’d focus instead on five hidden gems of southern Utah and northern Arizona, including two slightly off-the-beaten-path stops at Zion National Park and our favorite discoveries at Cedar Breaks, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Vermillion Cliffs National Monuments. While these sights and hikes are relatively well known, they are much less visited than the main areas of the national parks.

Lower Calf Creek Falls

Lower Calf Creek Falls hike

1. Lower Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. We actually stumbled onto this hike by accident. We’d intended to hike a slot canyon in this national monument, which is right next to Bryce Canyon. Unfortunately, it turns out that July through September is monsoon season, with frequent thunderstorms and rains that wash out roads (and also bring dangerous flash floods to the canyons).

When we stopped at the visitor center in Cannonville, Utah, the ranger told us that the unpaved road to our planned hike wasn’t safe due to recent rains. She recommended the Lower Calf Creek hike. Slightly disappointed, we drove to the Calf Creek Campground instead of one of the canyons – and were so glad we did, as the scenery was spectacular and there’s a cool treat at the end of the trail. Be sure to grab a brochure at the trailhead, as it points out interesting sights along the way.

The six-mile round trip hike took us past dramatic, layered Navajo Sandstone cliffs. We finally arrived at a waterfall and crystal-clear pool. The waterfall was spectacular, much larger and more beautiful than we had expected. Bring or wear your swimsuit; the icy water beneath the falls was so refreshing after the hike through sand and sagebrush. During the hike, keep a lookout for the Fremont pictographs on one of the cliff walls.

2. Taylor Creek hike in Kolob Canyons, Zion National Park. We visited Zion in late July, and by noon the trails near Springdale were packed. After the Narrows hike, we headed for the Kolob Canyons area to escape the crowds. It’s a 45-minute drive from Springdale to the visitor center there.

From the Taylor Creek trailhead, we did a five-mile round trip hike that took us along a creek (just a trickle during our trip) to the stunning Double Arch Alcove. We saw just a few other visitors on our early-morning hike, but plenty of small lizards, birds, and even a toad hopping through the creek.

3. Cedar Breaks National Monument. After visiting Kolob Canyons, we’d planned to circle back through Zion National Park and the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel on our way to Bryce Canyon. But since we’d be heading back that way at the end of the trip, I asked a park ranger for recommended alternate routes. He raved about Cedar Breaks, which only added 20 minutes to our drive, so we decided to be spontaneous and change our plans. We’re so glad we did. For one thing, the afternoon brought baking heat to the lower elevations, but by the time we climbed to Cedar Breaks at more than 10,000 feet, it was so chilly we needed sweatshirts!

Not only was the view from the visitor center spectacular, but we were treated to fields of wildflowers and a lovely little hike to an alpine pond swarming with blue dragonflies. We were a little late for peak wildflower viewing season – early to mid-July – but the flowers were still in bloom. We felt very fortunate to spend a few hours here.

4. Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. After visiting the north rim of the Grand Canyon, we had time to spare, so we drove along the edges of these colorful cliffs on Highway 89A all the way to Lees Ferry, where we dipped our toes in the Colorado River and watched rafters prepare to depart for trips through the Grand Canyon. The rock formations were astonishing, as were the other views along the way.

We briefly pondered some of the hikes at the national monument, including one through a wash full of boulders, but the 98 degree heat quickly changed our minds. We did stop for a fantastic canyon and river view from the historic Navajo Bridge.

5. Petroglyphs in Zion National Park. While planning for our trip, I stumbled across of mention of petroglyphs – Native American rock carvings – in Zion National Park. Apparently, the exact location of the main public site is not widely publicized in order to protect the carvings. I took this as a challenge! With a little research, we were able to figure out the coordinates and print a description of the short hike.

Zion petroglyphs

Zion petroglyphs

We parked in the unmarked pullout and hiked down to a dry creek bed, then through a brick culvert. A short trail from the creek took us into a pretty little canyon, and there was the park register and information sheets with a description of the petroglyphs. I especially enjoyed the carvings showing bighorn sheep, which we also saw in abundance near the entrance to the Mt. Carmel tunnel.

In the spirit of preservation, I won’t give detailed directions about how to find the petroglyphs. If you’re interested, you’ll be able to locate them with a little online detective work. How’s that for a final secret spot, one that really is a little bit of a secret?

Overall, our trip was amazing, and not too expensive. We used frequent flier miles to get from Portland to Las Vegas, and loyalty program points for nights at Marriott hotels in St. George, Utah, at the beginning and end of our trip. Our best money-saving tip: we mostly got coffee at our motels, and ate energy bars or trail mix for breakfast. Lunch on the trail was peanut butter sandwiches (we stopped at Target in St. George for groceries). I did quickly learn that trail mix with chocolate chips isn’t the best choice for desert heat. Oh, well. It was clumpy but still delicious.

We were initially worried that a trip loaded with canyon hikes would be a challenge for Mark, who is not fond of heights or cliffy trails. However, there were many flat creek hikes to choose from at every park. We even discovered the Tropic Trail, a back way into the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon that avoids the steep trails down into the canyon. While it added distance – about 3 miles round trip, plus whatever distance you decide to hike through the hoodoos – we also had the trail completely to ourselves until we reached the crowded Navajo and Queen’s Garden trails of Bryce Canyon.

Tropic Trail

Tropic Trail

We spent eight days at the parks, and didn’t feel too rushed. If we were to plan this trip again, we’d try to go through Capitol Reef and Canyonlands National Parks as well, to make a larger loop – perhaps adding a day or two to the journey. Since we didn’t get to those parks, though, we have a great excuse to go back to one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been!

Thanks so much for writing for us this week, Miranda!  If you have a “secret” hiking spot to add to the conversation, please leave a note in the comments.  And enjoy your week or your weekend!

Photo credits: Mark Li and Miranda Doyle